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Three lessons for Asia from the world's top megacities

Sustainable urbanization is the key to rebuilding after the pandemic

| Singapore
Cyclists ride past the city skyline in Singapore on June 19: adapting existing road infrastructure to be more bicycle-friendly would be a welcome consequence of the pandemic.   © Getty Images

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is the inaugural Asia fellow of the Milken Institute. Abhinav Seetharaman is the Princeton-in-Asia fellow at the Milken Institute Asia Center in Singapore.

Governments worldwide have enacted policies aimed at revitalizing domestic economies in the wake of COVID-19-driven shutdowns. In Asia, with its crowded urban centers, it is also time to rethink infrastructure development.

Across the region, rapid urbanization has fueled ever-growing demand for urban infrastructure such as water, power, transport, and waste treatment systems. Yet the Asia-Pacific region has suffered significant infrastructure financing deficits. In 2017, the Asian Development Bank calculated an annual gap of $459 billion from 2016 to 2020 for 25 developing member countries. Adding funding of social infrastructure, such as health and education, nearly doubles the gap to $907 billion.

Before the pandemic, these economies were collectively spending upward of $880 billion a year on infrastructure, still well below the estimated need of $1.34 trillion yearly until 2030, according to the ADB. COVID-19 has switched the focus of government spending to fiscal support, but that is not a sustainable solution to the growing needs of urban residents. Serious rethinking is needed if Asia's urbanization is to prove sustainable.

For example, one of the unfortunate side effects of the pandemic has been a severe strain placed on urban waste management systems. Greater use of lockdown-induced food delivery services, now a norm for many, has led to increased plastic waste as consumers have returned to single-use cutlery and packaging because of health concerns.

Singaporean households, for example, generated an estimated 1,334 tons of additional plastic waste during the country's two-month pandemic circuit breaker period, according to a study published in June by graduate students at the National University of Singapore. Bangkok has also seen a significant uptick in plastic output and now generates nearly 3,000 tons more per day than before the pandemic, according to the Thailand Environment Institute.

This is a pressing short-term problem, but the exponential growth of urbanization across Asia means that governments must not lose sight of the long-term importance of this issue, even if sustainability takes a back seat until the pandemic recedes. Fortunately, municipal authorities are emerging as drivers of holistic change, notably in the shape of the newly launched C40 Mayors' Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, through which 96 of the world's big cities -- including Singapore, Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and Mumbai -- are spearheading measures to create green jobs, protect mass transit, support essential workers and give public spaces back to people and nature.

As we look to a post-pandemic world, there are three lessons that we can draw from the work of the C40.

First, Asia's cities should see the pandemic as an opportunity to shift from long-held norms. City leaders, in particular, can help to accelerate a move from linear economies, in which raw materials are turned into finished goods that are eventually dumped and replaced, to circular economies, which aim to redefine and eliminate waste and encourage continued use of resources to benefit businesses, society, and the environment.

Prominent examples include waste-to-energy plants, which significantly reduce emissions from traditional power plants and help cities address the growing waste generated by increased consumerism.

A waste-to-energy plant in Wujiang, China: Asia's cities should see the pandemic as an opportunity to shift from long-held norms.   © Reuters

Second, cities should fully commit to exploring innovations in the delivery of services and the measuring of environmental impact. This is critical to achieving the United Nations' goal of sustainable cities and communities. Specific areas of focus include safe and affordable housing, environmental impact reduction, access to safe and inclusive public green spaces, and affordable and sustainable transport systems.

COVID-19 also has highlighted the need for green spaces that are accessible and equitable for all residents of urban areas. The pandemic has increased concerns that the world faces a looming mental health crisis, with anxiety and fears over virus transmission mechanisms exacerbated by the isolation caused by lockdowns and social distancing. Public green space -- often in short supply and viewed as a luxury in many of Asia's crowded cities -- has been shown to have a strong correlation to improved mental health and psychological benefits.

While urban mass transit systems have been touted as ways to go green, the current reduced demand for public transport due to pandemic-related health concerns and people working from home has resulted in significant revenue shortfalls. Re-imagined cities must include smarter, safer, and healthier transport and workplaces that address new concerns about social distancing and public spacing.

Adapting existing road infrastructure to be more bicycle-friendly, and better integration of spaces for green transport in the urban landscape would be a welcome consequence of the pandemic. City-states like Singapore are already exploring the possibility of converting underused road lanes to cycling and bus lanes and pedestrianizing certain roads.

Third, cities can learn from each other's successes and failures to shift to more sustainable economies. Intriguingly, several nations have incorporated environmentally conscious measures into stimulus-related infrastructure measures. Malaysia, for example, has set its hopes on large-scale solar energy as a major propeller of its post-pandemic recovery plans, having allocated $2.9 billion for rooftop solar panels and LED street lighting. And South Korea has unveiled its version of a bold green new deal, with projects totaling more than 73 trillion won ($66 billion) of a 160 trillion won economic stimulus package.

As Asia's urban areas recover from COVID-19 shutdowns, city leaders have a timely opportunity to move toward a more sustainable urban economy and development model. Ultimately, urban development must be redefined to encompass healthier approaches if Asia's cities are to build back the right way.

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